Missouri Sets New Standard for Juvenile Detention

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At the Rosa Parks Center, as part of her treatment Tye recounted her drug history.

"At the age of seven was when I first smoked pot," she said. When she was in the fourth grade, Tye said, she began taking her mother's prescription pills and selling them because there wasn't enough food in the house. At 10, she started using meth and cocaine.

The Future of Juvenile Justice?

For Tye, Rosa Parks is her first stable environment. Although there are no guards or even fences at Rosa Parks, there are very few escapes. In fact, fewer than 50 kids a year abscond from Missouri's 32 residential facilities. "Rosa Parks becomes part of your family," one girl said. "You don't want to betray them."

Tye summed up the difference between Missouri facilities and other juvenile prisons, comparing the kids' problems to invasive weeds. "Other placements want to cut off the weed," she said. "Here, you get down to the root and they try to pull them out, because you can't kill it unless everything is gone."

Surprisingly, all the intensive therapy of the Missouri system actually costs less than other juvenile systems. The cost per child in Missouri, $50,000 a year, is about half the national average.

Twenty-five years ago, Missouri changed the way it looked at juvenile corrections because, officials say, the familiar model -- large prisons and boot camps -- was failing.

"The conditions for young people weren't safe, [they] weren't getting any better and were going out and repeating [the same] behaviors if not worse," said Tim Decker, director of the state's Division of Youth Services (DYS).

The new program has shown success. Only 10 percent of the kids in Missouri's juvenile jails end up in adult prison within three years, according to the DYS. In other states, that number is as high as 40 percent.

Recent reports about excessive violence against juvenile inmates have renewed calls for a national overhaul of the system. Does Missouri's model have the answer to America's broken juvenile justice system? Or are they just coddling children, as some critics say?

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